This professor wants to enhance infants’ reflex to suck
Babies are tough to raise and tough to manage. The job is even harder for people who handle newly born babies in neonatal units, especially in the case of premature babies. Emily Zimmerman, an assistant professor in Northeastern University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, wants to help infants born prematurely and babies who are struggling to feed and help them thrive better by improving their reflex to suck.
These neonates can do nothing but suck yet. Even when they’re not actively feeding, infants are perpetually sucking on toys, pacifiers, their own fingers—whatever they can get ahold of. “Babies are constantly hand-to-mouth, sucking on everything,” said Zimmerman. “It’s reflexive upon birth.”
When infants suck without acquiring nutrition (called non-nutritive suck), it tends to be in bursts. The infants will cycle through several bouts of rapid sucking with breaks to breathe in between. This behavior can be soothing, and it makes the infants more alert for feeding. This is an important part of their development. But for infants born prematurely, developmental delays and feeding issues are common. Their patterns of sucking may be erratic or weak. To help these infants get back on track, Zimmerman is looking for links between feeding behaviors like sucking and the sights, smells, and other sensations that babies might be missing out on during an extended hospital stay.
Through her study, Zimmerman found that infants suck more frequently when looking at an image of a woman’s face. “Feeding issues are quite common,” said Zimmerman, who directs Northeastern’s Speech and Neurodevelopment Lab. “If this is a simple, extremely low-cost way to enhance sucking, and potentially its link to feeding, it would be advantageous.”
To test out her research, she gave the infants a T-shirt their mom had slept in and placing them in front of side-by-side images of a woman’s face and a car, and added a specially-designed pacifier that could record sucking patterns. “Babies had more suck bursts when looking at the female,” Zimmerman said.
“A lot of my research has focused on ways to enhance this environment, to make the neonatal intensive care unit a more robust place for infants to get the skills they need to thrive and develop,” Zimmerman said. “If someone has a really low suck response, this seems like such an easy thing to try.”